Electric Washing Machine
The Inventor: Chicago engineer Alva J. Fisher
The Battle: His The Mighty Thor, an electric washing machine sold by the Hurley Machine Co., hits the market in 1908, but Fisher doesn't receive a patent until August 9, 1910, after at least five competitors introduce look-alikes to the market and the patent office.
And the Winner Is: Administrative error buries the other patents; Fisher sighs with relief. Some sticklers still begrudge him the title, though.
The Inventor: Alexander Graham Bell, a tutor for the deaf in Boston
The Battle: Bell files his claim at the patent office on February 14, 1876. Elisha Gray, an inventor in Illinois, files papers for a similar technology only a few hours later. Some speculate that Bell stole Gray's idea and the two tinkerers spend 13 months fighting in court.
And the Winner Is: Bell wins the court case and honors for spawning what is today a $300 billion business.
The Inventor: Nikola Tesla, a New York engineer
The Battle: Tesla's lab burns down in 1895, just as he's ready to transmit his first radio signal. The next year, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi patents Tesla's technology in Britain. Tesla doesn't recoup or file a patent stateside until 1897.
And the Winner Is: Marconi initially has more market success and is awarded a Nobel Prize in 1909. But in 1943, after Tesla's death, the Supreme Court declares Marconi's U.S. patent invalid. Tesla wins from the grave.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.